Thinking About Deception by Fred Feer
5 August 2004
This brief paper discusses the most often asked questions about military
What is Deception?
The answer to the first question is
misleadingly simple. The official definition is:
deception — Those measures designed to mislead the enemy by manipulation,
distortion, or falsification of evidence to induce the enemy to react
in a manner prejudicial to the enemy’s interests. (JCS Publication 1,
as amended March 2004)
It is misleading because it is narrowly drawn. To carry off a deception
operation against a real enemy, one has to look further down the list
of definitions, where you’ll find:
deception action — A collection of related deception events that
form a major component of a deception operation. (JP 3-58)
deception concept — The deception course of action forwarded to the
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for review as part of the CINC’s
strategic concept. (JP 3-58)
deception course of action — A deception scheme developed during the
estimate process in sufficient detail to permit decisionmaking. At a
minimum, a deception course of action will identify the deception objective,
the deception target, the desired perception, the deception story, and tentative deception means. (JP 3-58)
deception event — A deception means executed at a specific time and
location in support of a deception operation. (JP 3-58)
deception means — Methods, resources, and techniques that can be used
to convey information to the deception target. There are three categories
of deception means:
a. physical means— Activities and resources used to convey or deny selected
information to a foreign power. (Examples include military operations,
including exercises, reconnaissance, training activities, and movement
of forces; the use of dummy equipment and devices; tactics; bases, logistic actions, stockpiles, and repair activity; and test and
b. technical means — Military materiel resources and their associated
operating techniques used to convey or deny selected information to
a foreign power through the deliberate radiation, re-radiation, alteration,
absorption, or reflection of energy; the emission or suppression of
chemical or biological odors; and the emission or suppression of nuclear
c. administrative means — Resources, methods, and techniques to convey
or deny oral, pictorial, documentary, or other physical evidence to
a foreign power. (JP 3-58)
deception objective — The desired result of a deception operation expressed
in terms of what the adversary is to do or not to do at the critical
time and/or location. (JP 3-58)
deception story — A scenario that outlines the friendly actions that
will be portrayed to cause the deception target to adopt the desired
perception. (JP 3-58)
deception target — The adversary decisionmaker with the authority to
make the decision that will achieve the deception objective. (JP 3-58)
Beyond this nest of definitions one would find dozens of places where
the word "deception" appears in the definitions of other terms or pointed
to as an activity correlated with other activities such as "Defensive
Information Operations" or "Command and Control Warfare."
There is, however, a simple, action-oriented way to think
about the what and the why of deception:
Everything done to manipulate the behavior of the other side, without their knowledge of the friendly intent, for the purpose of achieving and exploiting an advantage is deception. The "what" of deception is the manipulation of behavior. The "why" is to exploit the advantage achieved.
What point is there in deceiving an adversary if not to exploit the result? The object is not to fool the adversary, it is to exploit an advantage gained by inducing predictability in him, i.e., causing him to cooperate to our advantage.
The difference between the target and friendly intent is critical
in terms of the distinction between deception and coercion. One could
force changes in behavior on a target that the friendly side might exploit.
This would not be deception, however, because the target would have
no choice. It would have behaved as it did because of coercion and its
knowledge of friendly intent, or lack of it, would have made little
to no difference.
Concealment of the intent behind friendly actions is essential to
concepts of deception because our manipulations would not achieve their
objective if, by virtue of the other side’s knowledge of friendly intent,
the target could refuse to act as we planned.
The relation between intelligence and deception is complex. Clearly
the better our intelligence on the adversary’s intentions and capabilities the better we will understand how to induce the desired behavior in him. But it is also true that the more we rely on intelligence the greater
the danger that we will ourselves be deceived. Bear this warning always
"As long as the enemy has a good intelligence service and pays attention to what it says, it will be possible to fool him again and again."
Geoffrey Barkas, the British officer in charge of many of the highly
successful deceptions that beat Rommel in North Africa in 1942, had
this insight after seeing the Germans capture a dummy oil port he had
built and thinking that the Germans would never be fooled again after
seeing what the British had been able to accomplish.
It is the search for information and the acting on it that creates a vulnerability. Without intelligence you could blunder, but you could
not be deceived.
Why do Deception?
There are many reasons but they all come down to something Napoleon
"Battle should only be offered when there is no other turn of fortune to be hoped for, as from its nature the fate of a battle is always dubious." 2/
Therefore one seeks every advantage possible.
What Napoleon was saying is what we mean here by saying that the impact of deception comes from one-sidedly reducing the level of uncertainty that afflicts all competitive relations. The deceptive techniques that
are used, whether head fakes in basketball or option plays in football
or honeynets in cyberspace are all intended to decrease one side’s—our
side’s—level of uncertainty by getting our adversary to cooperate against
his own interest.
The number of ways that can be accomplished is as varied as the people
involved and the tools they use. Seeing how the available resources
can be used for deceptive purposes requires imagination as much as anything
else. It may be harder to see the analogies between the physical world
and the cyber-world of networks and computer software, but the objective
is the same whether what is involved is a feint with a brigade of tanks
or a decoy network containing a file of false information. It is to get the adversary to respond in one way while we take advantage in another.
Designing and executing deception requires people, time, resources
and effort. Resources are never sufficient to do all the things one
might want to do. If combat outcomes are uncertain at best, why take risks for deception’s sake? Why not, simply overwhelm the enemy?
On one level the answer is simply that we do not have infinite resources and cannot always and everywhere overwhelm an adversary. On another
level, however, commanders have an obligation to conserve resources
both for humanitarian reasons but also because resources that may be
abundant today may no longer be so tomorrow.
Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of war was very sensitive
to this. He said, "All warfare is based on deception." But many of his
wise sayings praise the general who is able to accomplish missions at
low cost in lives and treasure.
"One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful."
How Can You Measure Its Value?
Saving one’s own resources and causing the adversary to waste his seems a simple way to measure the value of deception. Setting up a honeypot
would enable you to measure how long an adversary spent in one attempt
to penetrate a network. But, of what value is that to the friendly side?
What difference will X number of minutes of wasted adversary time make
to an outcome desired by our side?
In the physical world it may be easier, at least, to conceptualize
casualties not suffered, materiel not expended or bombs wasted on non-targets.
But what is the cyberspace analog to these?
Perhaps hours of uninterrupted availability of networks. Hours of
availability to friendly networks denied to an adversary? Hours of uninterrupted
maintenance of rapid message dissemination? Number of dummy or doctored
files downloaded by an adversary? All these may be worthwhile in particular
circumstances. But how do these quantitative measures translate into
Our preferred definition cited above puts exploitation of advantage at the center of deception and why we do it. It is well to waste an adversary’s time, but the question is, "What advantage do we enjoy as a result of the time gained?"
The impact of deception has to depend on whether the exploitation
planned achieved the desired outcome. The extent to which the adversary
behaved as we wished and the extent to which the advantage exploited
achieved our aim, is the extent to which the deception was successful.
Risk of Failure
Deception may fail for many reasons along the chain of events that
must occur from original idea to final outcome—just as every operation
may fail for many reasons having to do with our forces or the adversary’s
forces, the forces of nature or the laws of probability..
To list a few may be instructive:
We may fail to get our story to the adversary thereby failing to
He may misinterpret the information we provide him thereby behaving
ways we may be unable to exploit.
We may fail to anticipate all the adversary’s potential courses
British General Wavell and his deception chief Brigadier Dudley Clarke
learned a valuable and highly relevant lesson early in World War II
while they were fighting the Italian forces in Abyssinia [Ethiopia].
Wavell was planning an attack on the north flank so he feigned an attack
on the south to draw reserves away from the north.
Unfortunately the Italians were not privy to his plans because they
withdrew from the south and reinforced the north. Evidently the Italians
had their own ideas about the relative importance of the two flanks.
From this experience Clarke drew a lesson still relevant. Deception
plans start with this question,
"What do you want the enemy to do? Never, ‘What do you want the
enemy to think?’" (Italics in the original.)
Even a great deception success can have ambiguous results. The D-Day
landings at Normandy in June 1944 are a case in point. The story of
the deception operations preceding D-Day have been the subject of histories,
movies, television documentaries and personal memoirs. Thousands of people labored over literally half the globe to plan and execute deceptions to divert German forces and prevent the Germans learning the exact day and place for the main landings—with apparent success.
But it is not clear that the success of those deceptions deserves the main credit for the success of the landings themselves. It can be argued—I would—that the single most critical decision leading to the success on 6 June 1944 was the decision to go ahead with the landings despite the bad weather. In addition to the weather, Allied commanders
feared that a month-long delay to the next favorable window of tides,
day- and moon-light would give the Germans time to penetrate the secret.
Because of their weather prediction the Germans assessed that the allies would not land, at least, for another several days. Their analysis
of previous allied amphibious operations had given the Germans high
confidence that they understood the allies’ criteria and their best
weather prediction was that the criteria would not be met during the
6 June window.
But their weather prediction was wrong. It missed a two-day break
in the weather that was coming from the northeast and was due to arrive
at the Normandy area early on 6 June. Because of that gap in their weather
intelligence the Germans were not at a the highest state of readiness
that good weather would have dictated. The German commander, Rommel,
was at home in Stuttgart for his wife’s birthday. Much of the senior
German staff were away from their headquarters for a war game.
The German weather prediction was off because the US Coast Guard and Navy had uprooted German meteorological stations in Greenland and Iceland early in the war. At the time of the landings in June 1944 German
weather reporting was confined to reporting from 2-3 U-boats in the
North Atlantic. These were inadequate for accurate prediction of weather
in western Europe. 5/
Does that mean the effort to deceive the Germans was wasted or unnecessary?
By no means. The war required every effort and resource—if resources
were available no possible effort to harm or deceive the enemy was refused.
As Churchill said,
"In war-time truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." 6/
Deception is about influencing adversary behavior in order to permit
the friendly side to gain and exploit an advantage.
The outcomes of deception operations are not assured. The adversary
is an intelligent, adaptive, motivated human being. Contingencies must
always be provided for.
It is about manipulating behavior. Falsity, tricks and fooling people
are tools and tactics. They are not the deception itself, The deception
itself is the predictable, exploitable behavior of the adversary.
The payoff to success may be great, but the payoff must be related to the intended exploitation and the achievement of the operational
If the exploitation is not fully planned and resourced, it may be better to forego it.
1 Barkas, G. The Camouflage Story. London:
Cassell and Company Ltd;1952. Pp. 160-163.
2 Markham, F. Napoleon. New York and Scarborough, Ontario; 1963. p.
3 Sun Tzu. The Art of War: A New Translation by the Denma Translation
Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.; 2001. Pp. 84 and 140 ff.
4 Mure, D. Master of Deception: Tangled Webs in London and the Middle
East. London: William Kimber; 1980. P. 274.
5 Hinsley, F.H., et al. British Intelligence in the Second World War,
vol. 2, Annex 7: German Meterological Operations in the Arctic, 1940-1941.
New York: Cambridge University Press; 1981. Pp. 677-678 and vol. 3,
6 Cave-Brown, A. Bodyguard of Lies. New York: Harper & Row; 1975. P.